The Birth Of Black American Stereotypes in Media

The Birth Of Black American Stereotypes in Media

The Birth of Black American Stereotypes

In a 1987 documentary entitled, Ethnic Notions, director Marlon Riggs examines the influence white media had on the development of African-American stereotypes between the 1820s and the Civil Rights Movement. The film explores how the constant perpetuation of these stereotypes led to the belief these were true depictions of Black life. These embellished images, or caricatures, were grotesque and purposely misrepresented our experiences.

These negative portrayals severely damaged the African-American's quest towards the pursuit of happiness. The idea of freedom through racial and social equality after slavery brought hope to Black Americans, but this was quickly betrayed.

Through white-owned media and advertising channels, brands manipulated the public's feelings toward these images by using these caricatures to promote products like household items, alcohol and tobacco to increase sales.  Journalist, too, were all too comfortable using words like, 'coon, darkie and nigger' while describing Blacks within print publications. Not only did this advance the blatant racist agenda, it also created another avenue to capitalize financially.



  • Blackface the Introduction of Sambo and Coon

  • Happily subservient Mammy and Uncle Tom

  • The Animalistic Brute and Pickaninny

  • Black is Ugly




Minstrel shows were used to portray that slavery was good for the slave and that slaves were happy with their lives on the plantation. White actors utilized blackface as a costume to embellish and distort how Blacks looked and carried themselves. Both the Sambo and Coon caricatures were staples in minstrel shows and other performance theater.



The Sambo, (also recognized as Jim Crow) is one of the most classic portrayals of Black men in Performance Theater and film, although rarely portrayed by actual African-Americans. Sambo is depicted as childish and lazy; typically carefree and irresponsible. Sambo was quick to avoid work while over-indulging in simple pleasures like food, dance and song.



Zip Coon’, (or ‘Coon’ for short) was created in an attempt to imitate whites through the portrayal of a character who speaks through malapropism. By the 1900s, a new image of the urban Coon emerged as hustlers and con-men; often shooting dice, gambling and carrying razor blades, which was supposed to combat the growing threat of the Black labor force. Collectively, the depictions of the Coon and Sambo provided a defense of slavery and provided the fantasy of ‘happy darkies’ in their proper place.

By the time African-American performers became more prevalent in film, they were still required to perform in blackface. Although this was a way to a better life for most, Black performers were forced to perpetuate negative stereotypes in order to earn a living and gain acceptance from mainstream audiences.




The Mammy and Uncle Tom caricature also emerged as a defense of slavery but presented a more comforting, nurturing image. They joyfully served their beloved white families with no complaints. Even their clothing showcased delight in their inferiority, only portrayed in full clothing that’s neat and attractive.



Mammy is one of the most recognized images of Black women, becoming a stapled figure who appeared in many homes throughout the South. Minstrel shows, novels, film, and figurines presented her as fat, pitch black and happily obedient to her master and his family.



Uncle Tom, like Mammy, is portrayed as a faithful, happily submissive servant to his white family. He is presented as wide-eyed and always smiling while performing jobs such as a cook, butler, waiter and field hand. Unlike a Brute or Sambo, Tom is seen as dependable, non-threatening and eager to serve. Often portrayed as an older, frail, gentleman, Tom is usually psychologically dependent upon the approval of his white peers.

These caricatures were used to project that Blacks were content within our circumstance of poverty, subservience, segregation and social injustices, something we all know to be false.




Early publications and cartoons popularized the belief that Blacks descended from savages. These Brute and Pickaninny caricatures portrayed Blacks as animalistic creatures who should be regarded as such, going as far as to hunt and kill them to minimize their “threat” to society. According to myth: slavery and segregation had managed to domesticate African-Americans. Those who wanted to re-establish firm white control used the argument that without the supervision of whites, Blacks reverted to savagery, which manipulated public sentiment and affirmed the so-called ‘black menace' narrative.



Popular thought deemed by ending slavery, all the savages could finally pursue their innermost desires -- white women. In the minds of white men, there was no greater offense against his race, country and God than to give his daughter to a ‘negro beast.’

The Brute caricature was not used in earlier depictions of African-Americans during slavery because it would have suggested that Blacks were rebellious because they wanted to be free as opposed to the Sambo and Coon who were content enslaved.



Pickaninnies were most prevalent in cartoons, advertisements, and children’s books. They were always seen by bodies of water, in the dirt, swinging from trees and often with unkempt hair. They were viewed as little furry animals, which justified the usage of them as alligator food. This helped perpetuate the view that Blacks were subhuman at all levels, including childhood.

Children’s’ nursery rhymes, cartoons and books targeted pickaninnies for comic violence, promising to get rid of these little savages until there were none left. Cartoons provided the best form of racial caricature. This fantasy world showcased that physical distortion and violence against these children were to be laughed at and celebrated not viewed as heinous. Through Songbooks and movies, impressionable minds were taught to see stereotypes as not only acceptable but humorous.




Although each caricature has its underlying motive, the one common theme throughout them all is ‘black is ugly.’

From the deceptions of Blacks in minstrels to the cartoons of our kids, blacks had always been portrayed as unattractive. Seeing these unrealistic images over and over again became mentally destructive, making way for distorted notions of how we perceive ourselves.

Even today, the inherited European standard of ‘white beauty’ runs rampant throughout American culture.




In the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement began to push for social justice and equality under the United States law. This sparked events like the Montgomery, Alabama Rosa Parks bus boycott as well as the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who became the face of the movement.

By the mid-1960s, increased coverage on the brutal realities of American racism infiltrated every home in the country, spawning a slow adaptation to views on politics and race relations. Though the more extreme caricatures began to decline in frequency but never disappeared, the new images still emphasized violence and brutality.


The 70s and 80s brought about a new wave of old stereotypes; although updated and presented with less blatant racist imagery. The influx of Blaxploitation films attempted to reverse the stereotypes of Blacks within cinema, but still painfully projected and reinforced negative images of Blacks as con men, drug dealers, and overtly sexual beings. The eighties, in particular, portrayed Black men as the “black Rambo” type in film and on TV; always emphasizing violence and usually a law enforcement type who felt the need to exhibit brute force or abuse in the name of the law.

By 2019, one would hope the psychological harm of these stereotypes would have dissolved over time. Though that isn't at all realistic, this type of indirect manipulation has caused deep wounds within African Americans.

Although we've endured decades of derogatory messages about Black life, we've persevered, finding ways to take back our stories and present our experiences.

The 90s provided Black television gold with shows like Martin and Living Single, showcasing actual daily experiences of African-Americans. The cinematic catalogs of the likes of Spike Lee and John Singleton allowed us to see our true authentic selves on the silver screen.

More recently, award-winning Black creatives like Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay have spearheaded major projects that not only speak to Black audiences but target society as a whole. Jordan Peele's work has infiltrated even horror films. And writer Lena Waithe has also recently been named Lead Program Mentor for AT&T's Hello Lab Filmmaker Mentorship Program.


Ethnic Notions